Lee Herrick, the first Asian American to become California’s poet laureate. Photo by Curtis Messer/www.leeherrick.com

Fresno’s Lee Herrick Named California’s Poet Laureate

Governor Gavin Newsom recently appointed Fresno poet Lee Herrick as California’s newest poet laureate. Herrick is the first Asian American to be so honored. He has been widely published in literary magazines across the nation and is the author of three books.

In bestowing the honor, the governor said that Herrick was chosen because of his dedication to highlighting the diverse experiences of Californians and making them accessible through his poetry. The actual appointment unfolded with a surprise visit from Governor Newsom to Herrick’s Fresno City College classroom.

“It was an absolute thrill, deeply humbling, very exciting,” said Herrick. “It’s starting to settle in now, but having the governor and the first partner walk into my poetry class to tell me in person was unforgettable.”

Herrick was born in South Korea in 1970 and was raised in the Bay Area and San Joaquin Valley by his adoptive parents. His literary inspiration came from the vibrant poetry scene by the Bay and his frequent visits to City Lights Bookstore.

Herrick says what inspires him now comes from his students and his immersion in the celebrated Fresno poetry scene. Juan Felipe Herrera, another Valley writer, was named California’s first Latino poet laureate in 2015. Over the years, poetry and literature growing from Valley soil have gained a national reputation.

“The poetry here is boundless and as powerful as any poetry being written in the country,” says Herrick. “Anywhere I go around the country people will ask me what it’s like to be a poet in Fresno and do you know Juan Felipe and things like that.

“I could go on and on of the poets whose books are really having a meaningful impact on people’s lives and on the poetry community in general.”

Much of Herrick’s writing revolves around the immigrant experience in America. He says that growing up as a person of color immersed in a White social milieu played an important role in developing an understanding of American culture. That patchwork quilt of diverse ethnicities, cultures, languages and lifeways that describes his San Joaquin Valley is why he feels so at home here.

Herrick has been a Fresno City College professor for more than a quarter-century and affirms that the poetry emerging from the Valley illustrates and celebrates that diversity: “It’s exciting to see how that diversity continues to expand, you know not just with race and gender, but orientation, aesthetic and vision.”

His inspiration to become a poet, Herrick notes, has roots ranging from classical American poets, like Walt Whitman and Emily Dickinson, all the way to rock, punk and rap musical genres. Music is still a creative stimulant.

In current times, what arouses his muse is the trauma and tragedy of gun violence and the killing of people of color in America and how to cope with it.

Being the state’s poet laureate is more than just an honorific title. It is a job.

His job description is advocating for poetry in classrooms and boardrooms across the state, inspiring an emerging generation of literary artists, and educating all Californians about the many poets and authors who have influenced our state through creative literary expression. And Herrick has a plan for the mission he wants to carry out.

“I’m calling my platform ‘Our California,’ which will bring together poetry with social justice and civic engagement organizations around the state,” notes Herrick.

“So, wherever I read, I will invite the curator or the organizer to bring on one of those organizations to pair with my reading. And it might include a local poet or a student poet, but I also want to bring that organization to the event so those folks and the poetry folks can be in community and in conversation with each other.”

California Poet Laureate Herrick believes in the power of poetry. That poetry can move people toward action and change and community.

My California
A poem by Lee Herrick
Here, an olive votive keeps the sunset lit,
the Korean twenty-somethings talk about hyphens,
graduate school and good pot. A group of four at a window
table in Carpinteria discuss the quality of wines in Napa Valley versus Lodi.
Here, in my California, the streets remember the Chicano
poet whose songs still bank off Fresno’s beer-soaked gutters
and almond trees in partial blossom. Here, in my California
we fish out long noodles from the pho with such accuracy
you’d know we’d done this before. In Fresno, the bullets
tire of themselves and begin to pray five times a day.
In Fresno, we hope for less of the police state and more of a state of grace.
In my California, you can watch the sun go down
like in your California, on the ledge of the pregnant
twenty-second century, the one with a bounty of peaches and grapes,
red onions and the good salsa, wine and chapchae.
Here, in my California, paperbacks are free,
farmer’s markets are twenty four hours a day and
always packed, the trees and water have no nails in them,
the priests eat well, the homeless eat well.
Here, in my California, everywhere is Chinatown,
everywhere is K-Town, everywhere is Armeniatown,
everywhere a Little Italy. Less confederacy.
No internment in the Valley.
Better history texts for the juniors.
In my California, free sounds and free touch.
   Free questions, free answers.
Free songs from parents and poets, those hopeful bodies of light.

From Gardening Secrets of the Dead. Copyright 2012 by Lee Herrick. Published by WordTech Communications LLC. Reprinted by permission of Lee Herrick. The poem first appeared in ZYZZYVA, a San Francisco journal of arts and letters.

  • Vic Bedoian

    Vic Bedoian is the Central Valley correspondent for KPFA News and a Community Alliance reporter specializing in natural history and environmental justice issues.

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